Penny Martin

With its premier issue hitting newsstands now (despite its agreeable name), The Gentlewoman is putting civility back into women’s magazines. Forget blaring headlines, intimidating fashion shoots, fawning celebrity stories. Curling up with The Gentlewoman—the sister publication of Fantastic Man—feels like you’re chatting with friends, even if those friends are alpha-women Phoebe Philo of Céline, Jenny Holzer and the just-named co-recipient of the Pritzker Prize for architecture, Kazuyo Sejima. That the biannual has already achieved a cozy, affectionate familiarity with its subjects, particularly at this uncertain time for print media, is due in large part to the no-fuss vision of its editor-in-chief, the Scottish lass and my friend Penny Martin…

Lee Carter: For as long as I’ve known you, you’ve always had your hands in a myriad of projects. But perhaps none fits you better than The Gentlewoman. How did that come about?

Penny Martin: Jop [van Bennekom] and Gert [Jonkers] first put the notion of a women’s version of Fantastic Man to me in Spring 2008. We talked about it on and off for about a year, during which time I’d left SHOWstudio to take up a professorship at London College of Fashion. When I heard that they were finally going to do it about a year ago, I got such an intense envy rush. I knew I absolutely had to do it.

Well I hope your case of envy rush cleared up. Tell us about the title. Can we expect lots of stories about amazing gentlewomen?

You can. This issue, in terms of features and interviews, we have, let me see, three designers, four artists, a model, a chef, a writer, an architect, a winemaker, a DJ and an open water swimmer.

Are you a gentlewoman?

Gosh, that’s a difficult question to answer. Am I the woman referred to in the title? No. The magazine is about taking pleasure in other women. But if being a gentlewoman is being upbeat, optimistic, interested in the world around you, liking other women and loving fashion, then yes, I probably share some of those qualities. I think it’s for other people to decide. I don’t think many men would refer to themselves as a gentleman. They’d just hope that they were.

I like that it’s neither a fashion nor lifestyle magazine. And I like that it’s not aspirational and doesn’t try to prescribe, nor does it try to speak in a post-feminist voice. The cover story on Phoebe Philo, for example, couldn’t be more relevant as everyone is talking about Céline right now. Can you shed some light on that interview for us?

Yes, that was incredibly lucky. We heard last September, just before I started, that though Phoebe wasn’t giving many interviews, she was considering us, which was obviously extraordinary, putting so much trust in a launch issue. I’d actually done her last interview at Chloé, so it felt very symmetrical. It was great to meet her again after the success of that spring collection and to see her so happy and assured, queen of her new domain. Everyone is incredibly curious about her. When you come back from interviewing John Galliano or whoever, people don’t ask the same kind of prying questions, you know, “So, what’s she actually like?”—as if they can’t accept what they are reading and there must be some heinous scandal in there somewhere.

I think people have been trained to look for scandal. Who are some other scandalously gentle women you’d like to profile?

I think we’d be less likely to feature someone that you already knew a great deal about, as would be the case of anybody notorious. What would be the point? That said, I’m rather drawn to women that live through a big drama stylishly. Martha Stewart is pretty fabulous, I’m intrigued by Chelsea Clinton and I do love the look of that Fiona Shackleton. But scandal-hunting—it’s not very modern, is it?

Would you interview women who are notoriously ungentle? I mean, even Barbara Walters sat down with Monica Lewinsky.

Oh, here I should be clear. The title isn’t “The Gentle Woman”, it’s The Gentlewoman. We’re interested in the intelligent, stylish, modern women of the present day, not in notions of gentility or decorum. Besides, I wouldn’t say a scurrilous past or outrageous personal life necessarily excludes someone from being a gentlewoman. In terms of the magazine, it’s a question of how it’s presented. There’s a great interview with the artist Anna Blessman in our first issue about “Modern Intimacy,” for example. It’s far more exciting to read between the lines of what she says about relationships with pets or nakedness in public than to read a blow-by-blow account of some tawdry encounter or other.

“Relationships with Pets” sounds like an American reality show waiting to happen, but I digress. So at this point I’m wondering what it’s like to be one of the only women—perhaps the only woman?—in a senior position there. What have you had to explain to the boys from a uniquely women’s perspective?

In the Amsterdam office, where the magazine got made this time [permanent offices are in London], there is our art director, Veronica Ditting, and me in what’s very much a boy’s world. It’s the original home of BUTT, after all, and now the land of Fantastic Man. All the products in the bathroom are very tastefully chosen men’s ones and there’s lots of bread, cheese and ham in the kitchen—not very girly! Fortunately Vero and I have pretty similar tastes to the boys, but it’s fun to discover where the profound differences lie. We can’t agree on Gaga, for instance. The boys are also shocked at how much women interviewees talk about work.

Amsterdam, hmmm. Don’t tell me you speak Dutch. Are you one of those people who can speak a crazy number of languages?

I don’t speak Dutch, but I think the fact that we are quite foreign to each other in some senses is an advantage. Gert and Jop have worked together for so long and my own experience of working closely with a creative director at SHOWstudio is that you eventually stop having to discuss certain creative issues and ideas. You just know what that person thinks without having to ask. Had we, the Dutch and I, not had to really labor to make ourselves understood, I think it may have taken me longer to really join the team and we would have a less coherent magazine as a result. Plus women talk a lot more than men—30% more, I believe recent research shows. I’m also Scottish. We’re pretty direct, but not as direct as the Dutch!

Yes, I’ve been friends with the BUTT boys for at least seventeen eons, since the very beginning of Hint, and I’ve always loved how direct they are—not easily embarrassed. Let’s talk about the online world. Will you be moving in that direction? Does the gentlewoman go on the Interwebface? Is she Twitterati?

We currently have a Web 1.0-style holding page that I rather love, after all the Flash front pages, blogs and UGC attractors I’ve had to deal with in my time working online. We wanted to first get the content and tone of the magazine right before thinking about other platforms. People talk a lot about the tactility of The Gentlewoman and I must say, after having been “virtual” for nearly a decade, I’ve really enjoyed luxuriating in that. But yes, I’m thinking about how modern women engage with online and social networking a lot just now. It’s quite a challenge to do it well.

How much of a statement was it to introduce the magazine at a time when so-called experts are prognosticating the death of print and a lot of advertisers don’t seem to know what to do with their ad dollars?

Well, it’s a bit like that famous Delaroche quote about the invention of photography: “From today painting is dead.” Of course, painting didn’t die, it was just forced to change. Equally, magazines are having to focus and reposition because of the Internet. The two will coexist in some way or other but having worked online for as long as I have, I know there’s still no substitute for the tactile and immersive experience of a magazine. If magazines are forced to become more specific and ambitious because of online editorial then I definitely think it’s for the best.

Well, I’ve always known you to be a fearless force of nature, so I have no doubt you’ll make The Gentlewoman a roaring success. Is there anything else you want Hintsters to know? What’s next?

Well, we are about to sit down and thrash out our thoughts for what a gentlewoman does in autumn and winter. Scottish women just love a chance to wear lots of capes, hats and knitted layers for striding through wet leaves and walks on overcast beaches, so I’m quite the expert there.